JACKSON, Miss. – Faulkner built a big early lead, then made the plays down the stretch to hold off a Belhaven rally and escape with a crucial 73-69 victory here Saturday night over the Blazers in a Southern States Athletic Conference battle at Rugg Arena.
Faulkner's victory, coupled with Spring Hill's loss Saturday at Mobile, places the Eagles alone in fifth place in the SSAC West Division standings with two games to play. The top five teams in each division earn berths in the upcoming conference tournament. The Blazers' loss knocked them out of first place in the division.
Faulkner (14-12 overall, 7-9 SSAC) built a 20-point lead in the first half before Belhaven (14-14 overall, 9-8 SSAC) battled back. The Eagles' lead was trimmed to 10 at halftime and the Blazers methodically drew closer in the early part of the second half. A Woodie Howard 3-pointer with 1:52 left cut the lead to 63-61, but Adam Okechukwu answered with driving basket to push the advantage back to four.
A Faulkner steal resulted in a pair of made free throws from Malik Major with 1:13 left, widening the lead to 67-61. Jamarious Alderson then broke free off of a Belhaven miss and laid it in, and Faulkner appeared safe with an eight-point lead with 30 seconds to play. Belhaven's Daryl Arnold hit a long 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and, after a steal, the Blazers' Jordan Butts converted a conventional three-point play to trim the Faulkner lead to 69-67 with 10 seconds left. Jake Mitchell and Okechukwu, however, each hit a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to end the Blazers' threat.
"That's a big win for our basketball team and I'm so proud of their effort," Faulkner head coach Jim Sanderson said. "I told our team that we may not be able to out play Belhaven, but we certainly can out battle them. And we did tonight. We got a little rattled at the end of the half, but down the stretch when the game was on the line we were able to do the things we needed to do."
Faulkner started its SSAC schedule with six straight losses, but has won seven of their last 10 to get back into position to make the post-season. Sanderson had one word to describe his team's turnaround.
"Resiliency," he said. "Our guys never stopped believing we could turn it around. That takes a certain kind of young man, and we've got a team full of guys who work hard and battle. When you do that, the wins will usually come."
Palmore led Faulkner with 18 points, while Okechukwu added 15 and Alderson 11 for the Eagles. The Blazers were paced by Howard, who had 24 points, including six 3-pointers. Daryl Arnold had 15 and Smith 10 for Belhaven. Faulkner was able to gain the critical win despite being outrebounded 39-25 by the Blazers' athletic front line.
Faulkner's zone defense was ultra-successful in the early going as the Eagles forced numerous Blazer turnovers. Jake Mitchell's 3-pointer in the opening minute handed Faulkner a lead it would never relinquish. The Eagles forced 16 Belhaven turnovers in the first 15 minutes of the game and took advantage of them, building a 36-16 lead with 3:38 to play before halftime. A 12-2 Blazer run, capped by an Andrew Marshall dunk at the buzzer, cut the margin to 10 at the break.
Faulkner is on the road Thursday night when it faces SSAC West foe Mobile at 7:30.